Missing persons cases rank top priority for Westminster police


The 86-year-old woman knocked on a neighbor’s door and asked to come out of the rain.

Only, it wasn’t raining.

The woman, who suffers from Alzheimer’s and early onset dementia, left her family’s Westminster home at about 3 a.m. and walked nearly two miles before she ended up knocking at that door, lost and confused.

The police were contacted, and the woman was reunited with her family.

Her family had reported her missing six hours earlier and Westminster officers started their investigation.

In this case, a call from a concerned resident helped police track down the missing person, but there are many tools WPD has to reunite the missing with their families.

“All missing persons are a priority investigation for us,” said Westminster Cmdr. Al Panella. “And, of course, with at-risk missing persons we call our detectives right away.”

Westminster police see an average of 130 missing persons cases a year, and have a 97 percent recovery rate, which includes all types of people from runaway teens to elderly residents in need of medication.

The remaining 3 percent is a little misleading, Panella said, because there are many factors that can influence the WPD’s annual success rate, including when a person was reported and recovered, and whether that missing person is a habitual runaway.

No matter what the scenario, WPD starts off each case the same way: with immediate action.

“We don’t take missing persons cases lightly, and with the at-risk cases we really pour a lot of resources into it,” Panella said. “I think that is a big reason why we have such a great recovery rate.”

At-risk persons can be someone in need of medication, a juvenile who does not have a history of running away or an elderly person who suffers from various conditions that may impair his or her judgment and decision-making skills.

The woman police were searching for in February was such a case.

“We were really worried about her,” Panella said.

When a missing persons report like this comes in, resources immediately are deployed.

Hospitals and public transportation companies are contacted and asked to be on the lookout for the person.

Patrol officers are briefed on the situation, and Westminster puts an alert out to all surrounding law enforcement agencies.

In some cases, including this recent one, bloodhounds from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department are summoned to sniff out leads.

A Silver Alert, which broadcasts information on freeway billboard signs, also may be issued.

Panella said police also can tap into the county’s search and rescue team if local efforts aren’t producing results quickly enough.

“If we hadn’t found this woman when we did, that would have been the next step,” he said.

No matter what the scenario, Panella said Westminster police are well equipped for recovery and reunification.

“We really take it seriously,” he said. “We want to get these people back to their families and back to safety.”